Stealing Home

In this business, the snappy little cliche "he stole the show" seems to be used ad nauseam to describe any performance that displays even a smidgen of talent. But the number of times any show-stealing actually occurs continues to dwindle as the years go by. Waning stage opportunities force many very good -- even great -- actors to abandon the theater and head west in a quest to fulfill life's more pressing urges, such as eating and paying the rent. To make matters worse, many current theater directors tend to (mistakenly) follow cinematic leads, allowing costumes, scenery, and special effects to upstage the thespians. Indeed, one actor rarely steals anything; more often, should he or she have the good fortune to bask in the spotlight, it is due in large part to a solid supporting cast and a superior script.

I can remember only two distinct instances of true show-stealing: Ian McKellen in Amadeus brought me to my feet and left my hands raw from clapping, and John Malkovitch in Burn This projected so much focused energy my body literally jerked in my seat from the impact. It is a strain to recall any of the other players in either of those two productions. And recently I witnessed a third, if more modest, instance.

Without Sally Levin's portrayal of the flaky, sensitive, proper but playful mother in A.R. Gurney's The Cocktail Hour, the New Theatre's version would still be adequate, though nothing to toast. Levin's combination of incisive comic timing, honesty, and complex characterization demonstrates acting at its finest, and exemplifies why live theater still transcends any celluloid experience.

Levin receives support from a fine script and from Rafael de Acha's properly composed, intelligent direction. But that's about it. Fortunately she manages to rise above Lloyd Kay's stilted, nervous performance as her bombastic husband, just as she enlivens the almost-conscious Holly Iglesias, who sleepwalks through the role of Levin's embittered daughter. Tom Amick as John, the disenfranchised son, remains mired in one depressive note, leaving Levin to stir up their scenes. In each case she comes through, her performance masking the shortcomings of those around her. (In all fairness to Iglesias and Amick, they're real enough all right, but what they have to offer works better on film than on stage. Many actors in this area -- veterans of numerous television commercials -- apparently haven't yet learned the difference between live and Memorex. A subtle smirk on-stage doesn't read -- even from the sixth row.)

As for the smart script, to say that Gurney exposes phony WASP values and mannerisms in this play is to repeat the fundamental theme that underlies his body of work as a whole. Here the wealthy, dysfunctional family engages in a stinging one-room confrontation over proper behavior versus unconditional love. Besides, The Cocktail Hour deals with more interesting issues than that. To what extent should a playwright or novelist use the lives of his own friends and family as a basis for fiction? And is playwriting a frivolous sport in today's world, "an amusing little hobby," as Bradley calls it in the play? Even the character of John, the dramatist in question, wonders whether stage writing makes him some "medieval stonecutter while everyone else is outside enjoying the Renaissance."

Artfully employing a variation on the play-within-a-play motif, Gurney supplies himself with a forum in which to comment personally upon writing, critics, and the work itself, using his protagonist as mouthpiece. (The Cocktail Hour is also the title of the fictional play John has just finished writing.) Gurney himself admits there's not much of a plot here, and it's true -- neither incarnation contains a swift dramatic arc. But action abounds nonetheless by virtue of artful dialogue and authentically executed family feuds. Bradley's flip undermining of all his son's efforts is a nasty though not inaccurate example of how close relatives can slice one another up -- albeit politely -- during before dinner drinks as deftly as a chef shaving slivers of salmon at a buffet.

John's sin consists of writing a play about his phony kin: his father, Bradley, a hypochondriacal, pontificating fraud; mother Ann, whose monied background is the source of the family's wealth; sister Nina, who relates only to dogs, and the absent but favored younger brother, Jigger. From early childhood John viewed himself as adopted, barely loved, an outsider. His decision to test that tenuous love is what brings him to thrust his autobiographical work in his family's face and dare them to allow him to air their dirty linen in public.

The very idea sends them running for the liquor cabinet. Nina's unhappy with her character's status in the piece, while her parents are aghast at the social implications. "Even people who don't know us will sense it's a personal play," protests Bradley, terrified of being represented -- realistically -- as a Daddy Dearest. Panicked and ashamed, he offers John $20,000 to put the play back in the closet. Mom, who tries to mollify both sides and diffuse tempers, bristles at the prospect just the same. If John has to expose his clan, her reasoning goes, he should do so in a book, because books are "quieter" and because book reviewers, as opposed to theater reviewers, are so much more "polite."

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